How Do Palestinians Feel about the Shoah?

A shot from inside Yad Vashem.

A week ago, as I scrolled through a long list of unread news articles, I came across an article which attacked a recently released Belgian documentary on the Shoah. It’s timely to produce a new Shoah documentary, I though. After all, this year we commemorated the 75th year since the liberation of Auschwitz. But for the authors of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency which published the article, the angle was different. The Belgian Dutch-speaking TV series titled “Children of the Holocaust” mentioned that the Jews massacred and systematically expelled Palestinians. It turns out, the two words ‘massacred’ and ‘systematically’ managed to send a shockwave through the veins of Israel’s foreign diplomacy and local Jewish groups. Israel’s ambassador to Belgium, Emmanuel Nachson, in a letter to network called the ‘claim’ “irrelevant politicisation.”

This happened less than two weeks after the BBC reporter Orla Guerin came under fire for similar reasons. Marking the Holocaust Memorial Day last month, Guerin devoted the first four minutes of her piece to a moving interview with Rena Quint, a Holocaust survivor. She finalised her report at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It would have been fine had not Guerin felt the need to point out the relationship between the Shoah and the Nakba. As she concluded the report, while the camera filmed a group of IDF soldiers, Guerin commented: “The State of Israel is now a regional power. For decades it has occupied Palestinian territories. But some here will always see their nation through the prism of persecution and survival.”

There’s nothing unusual about Israel’s apologists attacking and demonising those who, God forbid, dare to commit the ultimate sin of drawing a comparison between the Shoah and the Nakba. Of course, the Shoah is a tragic trauma and acknowledging it is necessary for healing and justice. Associating it with the Nakba however is viewed as damaging to Israel’s victim label necessary for much of the country’s international legitimacy. So, suppressing the Nakba becomes necessary.

One trick is to implicate the Nakba victims and their descendants in the Shoah tragedy. Netanyahu in January this year tried to use the Fifth World Holocaust Forum — which was convened in Jerusalem to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz – to call on world leaders to back Israel’s position in the International Criminal Court. He referred to the ICC’s procedures as, you guessed it, ‘anti-Semitic.’ Netanyahu tried to frame the Palestinian struggle as anti-Jewish, and the Shoah was the instrument to delegitimise the Palestinian ICC effort. This is the same man who in October 2015, before the Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, described the Mufti of Jerusalem as the one who convinced Hitler to implement the Final Solution.

Though, it should be noted, Netanyahu didn’t invent leveraging the Shoah to undermine Palestinian struggle. The Shoah rhetoric has always been part of Israel’s conflict narrative against the Arabs and Palestinians. Wasn’t Nasser ‘Hitler on the Nile’, or even, wasn’t Arafat ‘Hitler in the bunker’, according to Begin during the 1982 siege of Beirut?

In a conflict, as much as there is an exchange of hostilities, there’s also an exchange of arguments and counter-arguments. As I scoured the internet to learn more about the two incidents mentioned above, I found that Israel’s intellectualisation and instrumentalisation of the Shoah debate – for the most part – was ignored or went unchallenged by the Palestinians.

After all, like it or not, Palestinians are directly or indirectly being framed in the Jewish genocide. If the framing is unworkable, as always is, the Shoah is still a weapon aimed at the legitimacy and justice of our cause. Not as a human tragedy, but as a political weapon. I kept wondering if the official Palestinian channels understood the need to create a proper narrative to counter-act the power of the Shoah narrative. Why the complacency? Is it because the Shoah is seen as irrelevant in our lives?

As I examined a group of news articles where some Palestinians actually spoke about the Shoah, I was in a disillusioned, if not disheartened, state over the sheer amateurishness and defensiveness most Palestinian political parties, groups, or even average citizens had towards the Shoah.

Simultaneously, as Netanyahu tried to undermine the Palestinian efforts at the ICC by bringing the Shoah into the discussion (January 2020), a group of Palestinian key figures held a press conference in Gaza to denounce what they called ‘the price that Palestinians pay for the Shoah, which the occupier commemorates at the moment and utilises to win the world’s sympathy.’

There’s some truth in the above claim. But it remains simplistic and reductionist. I couldn’t help but think of the various instances when the Shoah invited similar simplistic responses. When Netanyahu delivered the Mufti comments in 2015, naturally, Palestinians, like many Jewish-Israelis, were outraged. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat described the comments as hateful, and that Bibi absolved the Nazis of the Shoah to condemn the Palestinians.

Erekat was one of the measured voices, and his remarks cut to the heart of the issue. But Erekat wasn’t every Palestinians. By trying to debunk Bibi’s claims, several Palestinians – officials and scholars alike – turned what could’ve been an opportunity to further promote the Palestinian cause into a defensive endeavour. Looking back, this seems like a pattern in the Palestinian relationship with the Shoah.

This prompts the critical question, why would some Palestinians be defensive about a historical crime they had nothing to do with? Surely, developing a well-measured, clam counter-argument will be a start. So far, none of that happened, at least not as much as it should have. As it stands, beyond the ostensibly political incompetence and helplessness of the Palestinian Authority, the Shoah defensiveness – and possibly amateurishness – appears to be largely rooted in psychology.

In 2014 Palestinian professor Muhammad Dajjani of Al-Quds University came under fire for organising a trip for Palestinian university students to Auschwitz. The university disowned the students, and Dajjani who later resigned was accused of trying to brainwash the Palestinian youth.

Portrait of Mohammed Dajani, a former Fatah founder and prominent Palestinian academic. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90) – Times of Israel

Dajjani defended the trip by saying that he wanted the Palestinians to see where Jewish-Israelis come from, and to understand how to engage them. Dajjani’s argument was intellectually and pragmatically founded. The problem with Dajjani’s defence is that it had little room in a society where the Shoah is often assessed psycho-emotionally and only through the political prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is despite emerging signs of Palestinians becoming more open to the Shoah historiography.

For most in the Occupied Territories and abroad, the relationship with the Shoah remains largely within the realm of knowing. And knowing doesn’t always equate feeling or identifying. A Palestinian could probably sit down and watch Schindler’s List or The Pianist and get overwhelmed with feelings of sympathy and anger. Who wouldn’t?

But this still doesn’t mean Palestinians would acknowledge or see the connection between the human suffering of the Shoah and today’s Israel beyond the notion that ‘Hitler killed the Jews’ and the Shoah provided Israel with ‘super legitimacy.’ For what we know, the Pianist was probably the grandfather of an Israeli soldier in a Merkava tank running amok on our streets in Gaza or the West Bank. This, of course, is a ‘causal’ assumption based on facts on the ground.

You may say, the Shoah is only relevant in Palestinian history inasmuch as it played a key role in the production of the Nakba, and because it continues to cushion much of Israel’s conscience regarding today’s occupation. Otherwise, the Shoah would bear no more relevance for Palestinians (or Arabs) than it bears for the South-East Asians.

Trying to reconcile yesterday’s Shoah victims with today’s IDF soldiers has made the Palestinian relationship with the Shoah particularly ambivalent. Some Palestinians became trapped between the urge for sympathy and the existential need for self-preservation. That is, between the moral [and natural] need to sympathise with the human suffering of the Shoah victims, and the uncomfortable reality that some of those victims became our victimisers. Where do you draw the line?

Palestinian collective memory (and the perception of the status quo) is constructed around the notion of Israel as a settler-colonial power. Many Palestinians can’t view Israel outside the parameters of their own subjugation. Expect that with such mindset, it becomes extremely difficult to accommodate the claims of Jewish victimhood that come with the Shoah narratives, especially within the parameters of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. It just doesn’t fit. How can the occupier [ever] be a victim?

Attempting to overcome and perhaps normalise such ambivalence, it was inevitable that certain psychological defences would emerge. Many if not most of these defences are not necessarily intellectually driven. In order to protect the self, some Palestinians — knowingly or unknowingly, and perhaps reactively and impulsively — would resort to disregarding Israel’s history, downplaying the Shoah, or in extreme cases delivering

arguments bordering on Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, this makes it easy for Israel’s apologists to frame the Palestinians as Holocaust deniers, or even anti-Semites.

Some of these psychological defences, as you’d expect in a conflict situation, are strengthened by ideological justifications. Part of that can be attributed to the insufficient and politically driven knowledge of the Shoah that has dominated much of the Arabic literature on the conflict.

Apart from a handful of serious scholarly works that sought to understand Israel and Zionism — like The voluminous Encyclopaedia of Jews, Judaism, and Zionism by the late Egyptian thinker Abdul-Wahab Al- Missiri — the general trend in the Arab World still defines the Shoah largely in terms of the Zionist instrumentalisation of the Jewish tragedy.

This goes hand in hand with stereotyping of what Jewish-Israelis are or do, similar to Jewish-Israelis stereotyping ‘Arabs’ in Orientalist terms. In my various trips to Cairo’s used book market, Al-azbakiay, it became normal to find several Arabic versions of “the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” One of the sellers, who admitted it was a fake document, said it was still a popular choice for people interested in learning about Israel. The problem with that it confines the study of Israel to the realm of ideology, rather than scholarly exploration. Mind you, for Egyptians in particular it may be hard to separate emotions from politics and politics from ideology when the subject matter is Israel. After all, Egyptian history with Israel was noting but unpleasant. The images of captured Egyptian soldiers being run over and flattened to the ground by Israeli tanks in Sinai in 1967 still resonate today as strongly as they did back then. The peace treaty with Israel did very little to change that.

Al-Azbakiya book market in Cairo. Courtesy of Lusail Media, Cairo.

For Palestinians, the reasons to exclude the claims of Jewish victimhood are particularly existential. In practical terms, the Shoah creates a block to presenting the Palestinian victimhood narratives to the world. How can one compete against the ‘super-victim’ of the most appalling genocide in modern history? Edward Said once said that the Shoah “…was a uniquely powerful narrative with which to garner support, and the Palestinians had no equivalent.” Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish voiced a similar concern, he whimsically remarked that Palestinians are famous because of the world’s interest in the Jewish problem.

Because of this ‘fame’ we, viewing ourselves as victims of the ‘super victims,’ felt that our struggle was overshadowed by their past traumas. “…We had no Shoah to protect us with the world’s compassion,’ to quote Said again. So it became almost necessary to ignore, downplay or deny the Shoah as a defence meant to strip Israel of the virtue of innocence that usually comes with victimhood and to demolish Zionism’s moral-historical basis. You can’t be an innocent colonial power, how can you? Or rather, how dare you? The Gaza press conference in January this year was perhaps motivated by this existential question, same as numerous other instances whenever the Shoah was the subject of debate.

Of course, this is not a one-way road, denying or downplaying the Nakba has been an official Israeli policy since the State’s inception. But there’s a radical difference between the Palestinian attitude to the Shoah and Israel’s attitude to the Nakba. The Shoah is a historical trauma that defines Israel’s perception of the past and influence her present-time worldview. What comes out of that are existential fear, paranoid security measures, and consequently aggressive policies and a short supply of empathy.

The Nakba is, too, a historical trauma with deep psychological reverberations. But unlike the Shoah, the Nakba is not only a memory perpetuated by the Death Camps in Poland or in the rituals and museums around the world, or requires triggers to be felt or remembered. It is an ongoing experience in every aspect of Palestinian life. It is the force behind today’s shataat (diaspora) for the Palestinians in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. It bears multiple meanings for many Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the double irony of being a refugee under occupation. And, it represents a forbidden struggle for identity and equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. And for all, it is the lack of autonomy, unshakable coercion, and daily humiliations.

That said, despite all the psychological defences we have surrounded ourselves with to deflect THEIR Shoah, it’s perhaps the time we took a psychological leap towards including the Shoah in our lives. I’m aware this can come as a shocking call to some Palestinians. But the inclusion I’m suggesting is one that doesn’t blur the distance between the ‘I’ and the ‘other’. But rather a type of engagement built on weak identification – the difference between empathy and full identification.

Because in the end, accepting the Shoah into our lives is never a statement of guilt, it doesn’t by any means contradict our struggle for liberation. It doesn’t negate the justice of our cause. It doesn’t relieve Israel of today’s guilt or delete her responsibility for the Nakba. It doesn’t change the occupier-occupied relationship. Rather, it helps us better understand where Israel comes from and develop strategies accordingly. It helps us further humanise our struggle and places us in a higher moral position. Excluding the Shoah, I’m afraid, hurts us more than it does Israel.

About the Author
British-Palestinian academic specialised in the political and social psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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